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Out in the corn country of central Illinois the clouds stretch forever, thick and soft, as if painted onto the sky of an old-time movie set. Below them lies Highway 51, two lanes that'll take you to Chicago in three hours or St. Louis in two if you really gun it. Years ago you had no choice but to drive though each of the rural outposts along the highway, but now the road has bypasses, so the towns wash past, invisible but for a water tower, maybe a church spire. Moweaqua. Radford. Dunkel. They're just names on turnoff signs.
It's worth pulling over here, though: exit 42, outside Macon, population 1,200. Head into the P&V Quickstop, with the pay phone out front. Look up, past the tank-topped blonde at the cash register, the one with the sad eyes who's working her gum as if she needs it to last the whole afternoon. Keep looking, above the dusty disposable cameras and the COPENHAGEN sign, and you'll see it, up on the highest shelf, scuffed and dulled, its miniature batter frozen in mid-swing.
The cashier doesn't even know the trophy is there, just shrugs and chews when you point it out. Then again, she's never heard the story of the Macon High Ironmen of 1971, knows nothing about their unlikely coach and the most improbable, magical season in the history of Illinois high school baseball. Plenty of people around here don't.
After all, a lot's changed in Macon since then. Many of the family farms have been bought up by big business. Commuters moved in from Decatur, 20 minutes up the road. Schools consolidated. When Macon High became Meridian High in 1994—the same brick buildings with new signs slapped on them—the basements and trophy cases were emptied of memorabilia.
So now the story must live on in other ways. Through the trim, white-haired man at the Whit's End diner, the one with stacks of old news clips. Through the quiet man surrounded by books at his farmhouse seven miles down the road. Through the stooped newspaper reporter up in Decatur. Through the third base coach in the dugout of the Atlanta Braves. Talk to them and you'll understand the power of that trophy.
Macon High principal Bill McClard had no idea what to make of Lynn Sweet when the new English teacher showed up in the spring of 1966. Nobody in town did. Sweet was 25, thin and handsome, with a wide face, thick dark eyebrows and a crooked grin that gave the impression he was on the verge of cracking a joke, which he often was. His hair was short then, and he had yet to grow his signature Fu Manchu mustache, but he boiled with rebellious energy. An Army brat, he'd attended high school in Champaign, Ill., and dropped out of college twice before graduating from Southern Illinois with a degree in English. He drove a maroon Mustang convertible—that is, when he wasn't tearing around on a Triumph 650 Bonneville motorcycle. Even though his father served a tour in World War II and two in Korea, Sweet was progressive in both politics and lifestyle. He listened to Santana, smoked grass, read Aldous Huxley and cultivated a teaching style light on discipline and heavy on discussion.
Sweet often let students read what they wanted, believing it was better for a kid to pore over 2,000 words about rebuilding motors in Popular Mechanics than to pretend to have studied 2,000 in The Odyssey. He required students to memorize 10 esoteric vocabulary words a week and quizzed them on the Sunday funnies because then he knew they'd at least picked up a newspaper. If he felt the kids didn't get Macbeth the first time through, he'd ask them to read it again a month later, so they could see how literature can blossom. What's more, he taught novels such as Brave New World and plays such as Inherit the Wind, which may be classroom staples today but bordered on radical in Macon, a town that in 1966 was still stuck in the Eisenhower era. Men wore their hair short, women wore their skirts long, and church on Sunday was by no means optional. Likewise, teaching and coaching were considered one-way conversations. When Sweet arrived, many of his colleagues kept paddles on the wall under signs such as BOARD OF EDUCATION. Once a week or so a line of miscreants would head to the gym to be enlightened the old-fashioned way.
You can imagine how Sweet and his beat-philosopher ethos, not to mention his insistence on treating students as equals, went over with townsfolk and school administrators. "If you'd wanted to sign a petition to get him fired, you'd have gotten some signatures," says Jack Stringer, who taught industrial arts. "But after baseball? Forget it."
That Sweet ended up as the baseball coach was purely a matter of chance. He'd never coached the game and hadn't played in high school or college, though he had pitched in a handful of semipro leagues in which if you threw a good game you were rewarded with beers down at the tavern. But when Macon baseball coach Jack Burns stepped down before the 1970 season, the school budget was too tight for a new hire. So McClard went looking for volunteers among the 18 teachers on staff. The carrot: a 3% raise, or about $130 extra per year. Sweet figured why the hell not.
It was not exactly a plum gig. Illinois is basketball country, and Macon was no exception. If the baseball team drew a dozen fans, it was considered a big turnout. Then again, it was hard to expect more from a school of only 250 students in a town so small that the mayor, an amiable fellow named Wayne Jones, was also the school janitor. Indeed, the pool of varsity athletes at Macon was so shallow that, one baseball player remembers, "we had to play football and basketball as well, or there wouldn't have been teams."